Commercial Cultural Expressions:
A Look at Music Videos and MTV

      by Ashley Grisso  



There are several reasons why music videos' visual stimulation is a unique and powerful form of media. One is its power to evoke specific visual images every time music is played. Another is that the visuals are the primary source of pleasure and require a complex visual chain that relies on memory. This makes it essential to watch videos again and again (Kinder 1986). Viewers have to work at connecting images to formulate a narrative or context for song lyrics. The cognitive effort needed to decode the media text establishes the process as stimulating and memorable.

Music videos pioneered a new direction in video expression. Because they are commercial themselves, they erased the distinction between television advertising and programming. The use of the quick visual montage causes some to feel that music videos are a mainstream and accessible form of postmodern art. Music videos' potent use of "images as reality" has transformed popular media. Music videos' conventions have influenced television commercials, television programming and popular film. They serve as populist entertainment, particularly for young people.

Music videos function is to market pop songs to a music buying audience. The largest demographic targeted is young people 12-34. In the process of marketing entertainers and their CDs, videos and MTV have co-opted autonomy and youth rebellion as their mantra. They are successful because buyable pop culture is central to young people's lives. Pop culture commodities express personal taste, personal identity and identification in the youth subculture. MTV and music videos use a subtle marketing approach, they present their cultural product as an experience to be shared, an opportunity to participate in a wonderous leisure world. Participating in this world is portrayed as a primary experience, a part of living, so the products or videos become "natural."

Music videos animate and set to music the tension of US youth culture. Many of them recognize and mirror young people's feeling of instability and often they fuel teenagers' search to buy and belong (Aufderheide, 1986). MTV, particularly, plays to young people's search for identity and struggling to find community in a society whose major product is information. Bob Pittman, the inventor of MTV, said: "Young Americans are TV babies. If you got their emotion going, forget their logic, you've got 'em" (Lewis, 1990). MTV has enormous penetration in the youth market and can deliver an enormous audience to advertisers.

Personal identity is the primary commodity produced and co-opted in music video. The images are not real life or mythical, instead they are pop culture cliches, commodified forms of cultural stereotyping. Sex roles are an identity created from the outside in and usually from the perspective of male fantasy. Music videos encourage constant recreation of identity in a world without social responsibility, an untrue world of distraction and diversion. People producing and "starring" in music videos invent the world they represent. The popular culture iconic representations for males frequently include suitors, thugs, gang members, etc. Female images are often prostitutes, nightclub performers, goddesses, temptresses, servants or schoolgirls. Women are often outsiders or agents of trouble. All of this maintains the macho traditions of rock and roll (Seidman, 1992) and influence young people's social construction of reality (Berger & Luckmann, 1967).